Elections are often compared to battles. But as millions of dollars surged into last year’s state Senate race between Scott Wiener and Jane Kim, their battle devolved into a dirty war. And that’s why these two are exactly the right people to fix the underlying problem, the problem of money in politics.
In the race for the seat that Wiener ultimately won, extravagant sums of cash armed both campaigns with the weaponry of modern political combat. More than $7.3 million was spent on all sides, an astonishing sum that’s more than six times the average spent on state Senate campaigns in California.
All of that cash bought deceptive mailers. It paid for dishonest websites. And it purchased advertisements that spewed twisted facts. These are the missiles of deceit that blazed across San Francisco and hit their targets with laser-guided precision.
The targets were Wiener and Kim, but wars always create unintended devastation. In this case, the aftermath is littered all over our democracy. Our two ambitious politicians piled months of venomous campaigning on top of a national election that was bitter, barbaric and unusually dishonest. After 2016, Bay Area voters have even more reason to be cynical about government.
Though Wiener and Kim attached their names to vicious campaigns, we should pause to give them credit where it’s due. When they got into politics, each set out to make the world a better place. Both both were principled. Both were idealistic. In 2011, when the two were sworn in to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, they stood next to each other as they pledged to put the public’s interests above their own.
Once cordial colleagues, it is not the flaws of these two people that we should focus on. Instead, we should blame our system, a system that encouraged two good people to abandon their principles as they pursued their own victories. When people who clearly believe in representative government are encouraged to treat our already fragile democracy as collateral damage, we must change the system.
In fact, all of the millions of dollars they spent were used to exaggerate tiny differences between the two. Although partisans will point out a few issues on which they disagree, no matter who won, our next state senator was guaranteed to be one of the most progressive members of the California legislature.
Despite few major differences, donors jumped at the chance to buy access and influence from Mr. Dark Blue and Ms. Slightly Darker Blue. I admit, I’m one of them: I gave to Wiener’s campaign. But after witnessing the dishonest tactics that the money paid for, I have changed my position.
Today, I call on both politicians. I ask them not to focus on the hurtful wounds inflicted during this war. I want them to rise above it and recommit to the principles of public service. Wiener and Kim have the power to transform our broken system. They have the power to engineer our democracy so that it encourages better behavior.
Now, more than ever, our state must lead the way for our troubled nation. In 2010, California eliminated gerrymandering, the redistricting practice that inflamed hyperpartisanship in state houses and the U.S. Congress. What we did here had an incredible impact and inspired positive changes in other states. For the sake of our country, Wiener and Kim should create even more examples of good governance.
In San Francisco, Kim should champion a simple tweak: Public financing of campaigns is already possible here, and she should push for a small but powerful boost.
Currently, for every small donation a candidate raises, our system can provide a $4 match. But increasing the match to $6 is a magic number, according to Nicolas Heidorn of California Common Cause.
In New York City and Los Angeles, a $6 match allows a more diverse range of people to run for office. Plus, as big donors lose influence, candidates spend more time listening to a wider range of people. It’s a good idea that’s catching on: In November, Berkeley passed a $6 match.
At the state level, Wiener should become a vocal champion for full public financing of California elections. To make it meaningful, he should ensure that politicians cannot opt out, as he did in the last election to fund attacks on Kim.
As a member of the public, you can get involved, too. Call your city, state and federal representatives and tell them to take up campaign finance reform. And give to Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other organizations that promote campaign finance reform. At the very least, follow these organizations on social media — and the reform activist Lawrence Lessig at @lessig.
Andy Bosselman is a freelance writer. He can be found on Twitter @andybosselman.